James Butler was born in Kereen (Aglish), Co. Waterford in 1878. His family were poor– extremely poor. In 1891 his elderly father John, a labourer, died in nearby Dungarvan Workhouse. It was a place James and his family would come to know intimately in the years that followed. The young man’s efforts to provide his mother with “a house of your own” eventually led him to America, and the United States Navy. He made it through the Spanish-American War unscathed, but in 1899 the Imperial ambitions of the U.S., Britain and Germany would take him to a Polynesian island, and an early grave more than 9,500 miles from his boyhood home.
Through the 1890s, Kate Butler and her children were frequent visitors to Dungarvan Workhouse. Michael McKeigue, James Condon and David Wall later remembered that the family were “in a very destitute condition having had on several occasions and for considerable periods to seek relief in said Workhouse.” They would know, given that David Wall was a porter there, and James Condon was the teacher in the Workhouse School, where he remembered James Butler as a student. Kate herself would state in 1900 that “we are often very destitute, and have to seek relief in Dungarvan Workhouse, where we have been for a considerable time past and which we have only recently left.” As soon as was humanly possible, the Butler children went out to work. By 1896 James was employed as an agricultural labourer, raising enough money to get to the United States where he could seek to better provide for his family in Ireland. After his departure, he tried to send letters home when he could. The first in his file was written from Queenstown, Cork Harbour (seemingly written in late 1897).
Dear Mother I am writing you these few lines hoping you are in good health as I am at present thank God. Dear Mother write as soon as you can as I will be waiting for an answer from you you have nobody to write for you now but cheer up as you will soon have a house of your own and family to write for you. Dear Mother I expect you have nobody to write for you [she was presumably illiterate- we also know from the 1901 Census she was bilingual] write as soon as you can and let me know did you get my answer from Kate yet. I didn’t, I hope to soon get one from her I think she had a fine passage across with God’s help. Write as soon as you can. Remember me to Bridgie and Francis and Willie [his younger siblings]. I must now finish with fond love as I have no time to spare. From your fond son
James Butler xxxxxxxxxx (1)
Once in America, James didn’t waste much time before enlisting, joining the Navy in Boston on 6th June 1898. It was a time of opportunity in the military, given the fact that the Spanish-American War was underway. James was just over 19 years old, though his Naval records state he was a year older (there are other interesting discrepancies– his mother remembered him as 5 feet 9, but the Navy said he was 5 feet 6). He was described by the Navy as a mariner, with a small birth mark below his right buttock, and scars on the small of his back. His mother also noted that he was missing some of his teeth, the result of a childhood accident. James’s first assignment was aboard USS Wabash, then a receiving ship in Boston Harbour. He was sent to the USS Independence on 27 June, another receiving ship but on the other side of the country, at Mare Island, California. On 9th July he joined the vessel on which he would see all his active service, the cruiser USS Philadelphia. That was the date the Philadelphia was recommissioned as the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Station. She was soon headed for Honolulu to participate in the formal ceremony to mark Hawaii coming under the control of the United States. Shortly afterwards, James wrote his mother another letter:
U.S.A. Oct 15 
Dear Mother I am writing you just a few lines to let you know I am in the best of health thank God for it …I do be for months at sea and don’t see land but I would write as often as I can. Willie [ his younger brother] did a bad thing when he joined the militia he’ll be sorry for it before he is finished with it. Let me know how is Bridgie getting along when you write again of course Hannah is with you always. Let me know if you can [if] Mary Agnes has got married of course I cant go home no more however it wont break my heart of course you got plenty with you I might go home some time. I don’t see any part of the world like Ireland I been to fine places but home is the nicest of all. You dident know that I was in the war, it is all over now and I don’t want to see another fight like it it might be all right to read about but when shell and shot was buzzing by you it is no joke xxxx
I must now finish with best wishes to all of you from J. Butler (2)
Clearly James was pining for Ireland. His statement “of course I can’t go home no more” suggests there may have been a reason he couldn’t return (had he perhaps briefly been a mariner in the Royal Navy?). It is also unclear what action he might have seen during the Spanish-American War. His next letter was from the following year, and was almost certainly his last:
Jan 22nd 1899
Dear Mother I am writing you just a few lines hoping to find you in good health as I am at present. I hope you excuse me for not writing sooner I was in an uncivilized part of the world where I could not get no chance to write from let me know if you got any money from Boston if you did it is from me it amounts to 8.10 if you haven’t got it you soon will get it it was extra money I got for joining for the war you ought to get it as soon as peace was [declared] let me know if you got it. No more at present from your affectionate son J. Butler. I was in such a hurry I forgot all the children I hope they are all well let me know all you know about Mary
Cal. U.S.A. (3)
In March 1899 USS Philadelphia, and Coxswain James Butler, steamed for Samoa. The islands were in the midst of an imperial tug of war between Germany, the United States and Britain, which in 1899 led to the outbreak of the Second Samoan Civil War. The stand-off manifested itself in the backing of rival claimants to the leadership of Samoa; the United States and Britain lent their weight to Malietoa Tanumafili, the son of the island’s previous ruler (the appointment of whom had also been characterised by Imperial interference), while the Germans supported Matā‘afa Iosefo (who enjoyed considerable local support). The Philadelphia was among the vessels that arrived off Apia (today Samoa’s capital) on Upolu Island to take on Matā‘afa Iosefo’s German supplied forces.
Having used naval firepower to drive their enemy back from Apia’s vicinity, on 1 April a small force of British and American personnel together with Samoan troops moved out to attack positions at the nearby Vailele Plantation. James was among that party. As they approached the Plantation the Matā‘afan troops, who outnumbered their opponents, sprung an ambush. With snipers positioned in the trees, they launched attacks against the column and the fighting soon degenerated into hand-to-hand combat. After a desperate struggle the Americans, British and their Samoan allies were forced back, with the Americans losing four dead (the British had three killed, Samoan loses were though to be heavy on the Matā‘afan side, but light for those allied with the Americans and British). The bodies of the dead were recovered the following morning. Among them was James Butler. It was said that he had been “killed instantly when firing and standing against the enemy.” The official Naval Report for his death noted that he had died between 4 and 5pm:
Deceased was one of a company of blue-jackets under the command of Lieut. Lansdale, U.S.N., when attacked on the first instant by certain hostile Samoans. His remains were recovered early on the morning of the second instant, when after careful examination it was found that he had been shot dead. A bullet round was found in his chest entering about two inches to the right and the same distance below the upper end of the sternum. The missile had passed entirely through his body in nearly a horizontal direction. The attacking natives had cut off both his ears, and he had incised wounds on both sides of front of neck, and front of left shoulder. (4)
James was buried on 2 April near Mulinu’u. The war continued and ultimately resulted in the 1899 Tripartite Convention, which divided Samoa into a German controlled region (today Samoa) and an American controlled region (today American Samoa).
It is hard to picture somewhere further removed from Dungarvan and its workhouse than Samoa. Back in Waterford, Kate must have been distraught at the news of her young son’s death, the boy who had left with the hope of providing for her and his siblings. Those siblings were still extremely young, with William not yet sixteen, Bridget fourteen and Hannah just twelve in 1900. Though Willie was now following in his brother’s footsteps as an agricultural labourer, finances were still extremely tight. Nonetheless, the family had succeeded in exiting the Workhouse (no doubt in part thanks to money from James) and by now were living at 39 The Buttery in Dungarvan. Kate herself was 50-years-old. In order to secure an American pension, she sent on the precious letters she had received from James, together with a request that they be returned to her after the application had been assessed. As was always the case, they were not returned– they had now become official paperwork. But Kate’s pension was approved, and it helped her survive through the next twelve years, though she and her family were never truly free from financial concern. (5)
On 6th July 1911 Kate Butler fell ill at the home of her daughter Bridget (then a Daly) at 13 Thomas Street in Dungarvan. The dispensary doctor visited her, the cost of his time and supplies being paid for out of the Union funds. On 8th July Kate died, officially of peritonitis, and was later buried in Dungarvan Cemetery. The financial struggles she had been forced to deal with in her life affected her daughter in death. Bridget wrote to the Bureau of Pensions seeking financial assistance for the funeral expenses. In her letter, she described herself as “but a poor girl trying to earn my living”, while her solicitor J.F. Williams wrote that he felt assured the United States “will with their usual generosity defray the funeral expenses of the deceased and I also trust they will erect a suitable tombstone over the grave of the woman whose child gave his young life for the Country of his adoption.” The majority of the expenses were ultimately paid by the United States Government. Among the most poignant material in the file are the invoices from those in Dungarvan who provided services to the family during Kate’s illness and burial, the originals of which you can view in detail by clicking the gallery below. Those payments brought to a close the sad story of James and his mother Kate, one which forever linked a poor Waterford family with events on the other side of the Globe. (6)
*I am extremely grateful to Waterford County Museum for permission to reproduce an image of Dungarvan Workhouse from their collections. Also to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, New South Wales for permission to reproduce the image of James’s grave.
**None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.
(1) Widow’s Certificate; (2) Ibid.; (3) Ibid.; (4) Collum 1903, Widow’s Certificate; (5) Widow’s Certificate; (6) Ibid.;
James Butler Widow’s Certificate.
Richard Strader Collum 1903. History of the United States Marine Corps.
1901 Irish Census.
1911 Irish Census.